What is a photographer?

Soggy Blue-tit

Soggy Blue-tit

Just about everybody has a camera.  So almost everybody can take photographs.  But not everybody describes themselves as a photographer.  So what is a photographer, and why do some people call themselves photographers?

Google dictionary defines a photographer as somebody who takes photographs, especially as a job.  This definition seems to imply that a “photographer” is usually taking photos for money, and is therefore usually a professional.

So what is a professional photographer, and how do they differ from amateurs, exactly?  What are you paying for when you pay a “professional photographer” to take pictures for you, or of you?

There are a lot of definitions out there, but basically they revolve around the theme that a professional photographer takes pictures for a living – it is their main or even only job.  They are “creating a source of income from their photography” (http://www.howtobecomeaphotographer.biz/what-is-a-photographer-2/) .  Ken Rockwell, on his excellent web site, reckons you need to be making 50% of your income from photography to be a “professional” (http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/what-is-a-pro.htm).  Other people take a more liberal approach.  James Brandon, writing for The Digital Photography School says you are a professional

“When people love what you do and recognise you as a ‘photographer’, when you make any amount of money or business out of photography, then you are a ‘professional’”. (http://digital-photography-school.com/what-makes-a-photographer-a-professional)

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

Are there any other characteristics of professional photographers?  Is it having a top-of-the-range camera?  Is it that they take better pictures than amateurs?  The answer to both of these questions seems to be “No”.  Anybody can buy a wizzy camera, set up a studio, put up a web page and describe themselves as being a “professional photographer”. It doesn’t mean anything that you have the best equipment if you don’t know how to use it.  Likewise, many professionals will take photos on lots of different cameras including compact cameras and mobile phones.  As Ken Rockwell says “It’s never about what’s the best camera, it’s about what camera makes it the easiest and fastest to create what we need to create. Artists like to make things; we could care less about buying more cameras.” (http://kenrockwell.com/tech/artist-or-technician.htm).  The camera, in this situation, is the tool that lets you achieve your vision, rather than the be-all and end-all of photography.

And are the photos taken by a professional any better?  Well, that depends on the professional, and on the amateur with whom she or he is being compared, and also the subject area – it is difficult, for example, to make money from some types of photography, such as nature and wildlife photography, probably because there are so many talented amateurs out there.  A well-trained professional working in a commercial field will do a good job – photos that are technically proficient, correctly exposed, nicely-lit, in-focus, do what the client has asked for, well-processed and delivered in an appropriate and timely format.  Professionals may also take very beautiful, creative images in their own time.  But not all professional photographers take good photographs, either artistically or technically.  Not all professional photographers take time and trouble over their shots, or their processing. Take a good look at photographers’ web sites – how many of these honestly strike you as being creative, different, interesting, technically proficient, exciting or outstanding?  Some are, for sure, but many of the outstanding photographers web sites you see online are not professionals.

Common Blue in Meadow

Common Blue in Meadow

Amateur photographers take pictures because they love to do so, for the challenge, for the love of recording where the have been, what they have been doing, who they were with and what they were feeling.  Now, to me, that sounds like the definition of photography as “painting with light” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photographer) – you see something you love, or feel strongly about, and you try to create a light painting of that scene.  I have seen many hauntingly beautiful images taken by people who would not call themselves photographers, often with very simple equipment or even with mobile phones that meet the definition of “light painting”.  I have also seen many images taken with top-of-the-range cameras and lenses that would not meet that definition.

Emerald Damselfly at Sunset

Emerald Damselfly at Sunset

To me the difference between a photographer and one who takes photographs is this:  A photographer, or “light-painter” will know the effect that they want to achieve, will know what the final image is going to look like before they even push the shutter button.  It is the act of pre-visualising, or seeing in your head, what the final picture will be that distinguishes a photographer from somebody who takes snapshots.  In short, it is the creation of art that makes a photographer, and a good photographer knows how to do this:  How to convey their emotions, feelings, thoughts, the glorious patterns of light and shade.  The truly exceptional photographers make you draw your breath, and make the hairs on your arms stand on end.  They are able to convey what is in their own brain, in their own eyes, and draw you in, and make you experience what they have experienced.  It is a very rare talent, and one to which I aspire, but most certainly have not risen.

As for me, well, I think it is up to others whether they consider me to be a photographer.  I take photographs because I love to, but would not presume that anybody would want to pay me to do this (although people have indeed paid me to take photographs and bought some of my work).  I wish I could improve such that one day I achieve this label, but for now, I just take pictures with my camera, enjoy doing so, and strive every day to improve what I do, learn from my mistakes and from others, and most of all, convey my love and respect for the natural world to others through my images. 

Further Reading:

Ken Rockwell distinguishes 7 levels of photographer (http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/7.htm).  This is definitely worth reading for anybody who wants to call themselves a “photographer” and you may well recognize yourself in there somewhere.  It is also worth reading his take on “what is photography?” (http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/what-is-photography.htm).

Our Photography Workshops

Backlit grass

Backlit grass

The woods are an absolutely beautiful place.  Despite my photo course lasting almost 3 years, I took most of the photos for the assignments there, and it struck me quite early on that the woods would make a wonderful location for photography workshops.  Regardless of the weather, there are opportunities to learn the basics of photography and in the summer, the opportunity to look at macro and insect photography too.  It seemed the ideal opportunity to fuse my interest in nature and conservation with my passion for photography and to use the teaching experience I had built up over the years working at the University, albeit in a very different subject area.

This last weekend we had a fantastic day with our introductory workshop.  It is a bit different to many other workshops in that we don’t start with technical elements of photography at all.  There is no mention, during the morning, of exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO settings, white balance and so on.

Oak leaf on table

Oak leaf on table

None at all.  The reasons for this are two-fold;  first of all, people tell me that as soon as you mention technical stuff they glaze over and then forget everything else they have been told during the day;  second, I think there is very little point in attending to the technical elements of photography if you aren’t taking the “right” picture in the first place.

So, I divide the day into two parts:  taking the right picture (artistic) and taking the picture right (technical).  Starting with the artistic elements seems to me to bring about improvements very quickly for the students.  It helps with confidence, which is a major factor limiting what people can achieve.  Once you see improvements, you are much more likely to believe you can learn, and therefore grasp the technical elements too.  It also helps you take a good photo no matter what type of camera you have.  There are lots of cameras about, and most of them are extremely competent, and therefore about 95% of the time, it is the photographer, not the camera, who is responsible for a good, or not-so-good photo (obviously in some highly technical areas, such as birds, wildlife, insects, you need the right kind of kit).

Oak leaves on metal

Oak leaves on metal

We run through the “rule of thirds” – what is is, and how it can help with composition.  We look at leading lines/visual pathways, diagonals, symmetry and balance, lighting (direction and quality), and textures and patterns.  It is amazing what a small amount of attention to composition can do to photography, and how much confidence this gives people.  What is most exciting is that people try something different, something they would never have tried before.  It also gives people a toolbox to use in future to think about why a picture did, or didn’t, work.

In the afternoon, we move on to exposure and that magic button, the exposure compensation button (the button that has +/- on it, but that seems to be so rarely used).  Learning how to use the camera to check exposure, and then how to correct it, really opens the mind to possibilities and puts you in control of the camera in a very creative way.  We also look at those old chestnuts, aperture (depth of field) and shutter speed (control of movement), and briefly a bit about ISO.

It isn’t a complete photography course, but it DOES get people off the creative modes and intelligent auto settings, and taking control, and thus taking unique, special and individual images.  Some of the pictures the students take constantly surprise me.

Through the photographer's eye

Through the photographer’s eye

The macro workshop is a bit different, in that we require people to be already competent in elements of composition, exposure compensation, control of aperture and shutter speed,and therefore we deal with technical elements first, and how these relate to macro.  You really have to deal with this first.  We then use the afternoon, particularly the late afternoon when the light is lovely, to learn fieldcraft – how to approach insects and  make opportunities for macro photography out in the wild (as opposed to in the studio).  Hopefully, there are opportunities to make macro images that are not strict technical records, but bring out something of the beautiful, the unexpected, the surprises inherent in nature.  That stir the emotions, that make you gasp, make you think, draw you in to a new and different world.

Why do I do these workshops?  The answer is to help people to be creative.  Photographs have two purposes:  to make a technical record of an object or location, person or place and second, to convey a feeling, emotion, sensory experience, memory…in short, to put the viewer into the eye and mind of the photographer.  Both have their place, but the images that stand out for me are those that do the latter.  All too often people tell me about, or show me, photos of places they have visited that disappoint.  That don’t really do justice to the place they have been and the things that they have seen.  The aim of the workshops is to show them how to recognise what they are really looking at, and what they are feeling, and what is drawing their attention and then take quite different pictures.  They may not show the whole of a stately home, or a person, or a landscape.  What I hope they will do is get images that actually induce the feeling they had when they were in that place, picturing that thing.  And then to move on beyond satisfying themselves, and making images that evoke emotions in somebody who has been there and seen that, to taking images that can truly guide the viewer to experience the same emotions, the same experience as the photographer had when the image was taken.  Or even to a new place, a new experience, that is unique to the viewer, but is still guided by the photographer and the images that they have created.

Clearly this can’t all be done in a day.  But I do try and start people along this path.  It is very easy to find stuff that is written about technical elements of photography – it is all over the place, on web, in camera clubs, in books, in magazines – but much harder to get those creative light bulbs illuminated, and bring out the artist lurking behind the viewfinder of the camera.  We do charge a small £20 fee for the day-long workshops, which goes towards the maintenance costs of the woods (for sustainable wood fuel cutting, maintenance of paths and meadows and ponds, insurance for the public to visit and so on).

If you’d like to come along, see www.alvecotewood.co.uk – or the link on this blog.

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper

Dream come true…

The woods are beautiful.  There really is no way of improving on nature.  But despite knowing this, I have had a frustrated urge to try and do just that over the last few years.  In early 2010, I started studying a professional photography course, and have set many of the images for my assignments in or around the woods.  It struck me that it would be wonderful if I could actually hold an ehxibition at the woods.  Pictures of the woods set in the woods where they were taken.

This weekend, my dream came true.  My final assignment was to hold an exhibition.  For the last year I have been taking pictures with this aim in mind.  What I really wanted to do seemed impossible:  get a set of images that, when placed in the woods, would both enhance the woods, and be enhanced by their setting, so that both were greater than the sum of the whole.

Entitled “The Eye of the Beholder”, I wanted people to see the woods through my eyes.  There is so much beauty in the detail, and by setting images of the details of the woods  – the insects, butterflies, damselflies, flowers, light and shade, colour and texture – in the place where they were taken, I hoped that the eye of the beholder would be drawn into the image, through the image, and beyond into the woods themselves.  Drawing people through the image into the reality beyond, and helping them to connect to the woods, and learn to see nature, and its beauty, in a different way.

So much work!  Picking the right pictures, selecting the right spot (and then finding I couldn’t put the picture there because of buried stones, the need to turn the tractor, or simply poor lighting), finding the right kind of print that would be weather and UV resistant…and then bashing in the stakes (thank you, Stephen!) and mounting them.

Was it worth it – was it a dream come true?  Well…this weekend we opened the exhibition (which will stay in place until November 2012), and 63 people came along to see it.  And I think it worked, judging by some of the comments.

I don’t think I can ever make people see the wood through my eyes – but I DO think that by careful use of art in the landscape, the relationship between the viewer and the landscape can be made to change.  These pictures don’t do the same thing when they are indoors, on the walls – nice though they look.  Placed outside, in the environment where they were taken, they can improve the connection between the person, photographer and the natural world.  Photography in its real element.  A dream of mine, and a dream come true.

If you’d like to visit, we are open on Wednesday 29th August and 5th and 12th September between 6-8pm, as well as on our Open days on Sundays 23rd September, 28th October and 25th November.  If a group would like to come, then please contact us and we can sort it out.

And if you’d like to see the video of the exhibition with music – well, here it is.

Photography Part 6: Criticism should be constructive, whether of your own work, or that of others

  1. I have suffered hugely from destructive criticism in the past, which led me to withdraw from photography completely for years.  It is very easy to point out the flaws in an image, but much harder to genuinely help somebody to improve through constructive criticism.

What do I mean by constructive and destructive criticism?  By destructive, I mean simply telling somebody they think a photo is not good (very frequently expressed less politely on photography web sites).  Or voting “Dislike”.  Or rejecting an image from a group of which you are a moderator without giving a reason.  This is destructive because it is wholly negative feedback without any hint to the photographer as to what the viewer doesn’t like, or how they can improve.

What is much harder is to work out why you think a photograph is poor, or you don’t like it.  Even harder still is to help the photographer work through what they were trying to achieve, work out why in your mind they haven’t achieved it, and then help them to work through whether they could have done anything different to make the image better, and thus achieve what they wanted to.

You may think you are doing the latter.  However, it can come over very differently to the recipient, particularly if they are not familiar with technical terms, or are just looking for some general pointers and receive an essay on all the shortcomings of their picture.  Blinding somebody with science is a form of destructive criticism because it doesn’t actually help them achieve their aims.

There is a point to all this:  if you can learn to constructively criticise the work of another photographer, you automatically become able to develop a technique of self-criticism which will help you to improve your success in helping others to share your experience.  There is no right or wrong, good or bad, but there are always things you could have done differently.

Here’s an example:  You may not like an image that has a pink cast.  You could say “I don’t like the pink cast to this image”.  That is destructive criticism, and offers no insight to the photographer, or method by which he or she could improve.  Or you could ask the photographer “why did you give the image a pink cast?”  That is a constructive comment, because it makes the photographer think through why they did it, and perhaps will help you to see things through the photographer’s eyes.  It may also help the photographer to convey what they really wanted to better next time.  Or you may just agree to disagree.  Or it may turn out not to be a colour cast, but a natural coloration.  The point is, it will generate a positive discussion, and not make the photographer go home, sell their camera and give up.  And believe me, criticism can do that to a photographer.

So please keep your criticism of yourself, and others, positive.  Don’t tell yourself or somebody else that you, or they, are a bad photographer.  Instead, look at the image and ask yourself why it doesn’t meet your, or their, criteria of success.  That way, you, and they, will improve, and we will all be able to share our visual world.  And isn’t that what photography is all about?

Photography Part 5: Having an idea what you want in advance, and making the most of opportunities are not mutually exclusive

Most photographers are opportunists.  We walk around with our cameras or mobile phones and take picture when we see something.  Almost everybody takes snap-shots.  Some of my best pictures have been snap-shots (by which I mean I saw something, grabbed the camera, and got a picture).However, a lot of photographers also spend a lot of time visualising what they would like to see as their final image, and then go about achieving that.  A lot of fashion and product photography is done this way, and often takes hours of setting up for one or two final images.

There is, however, a spectrum between these two extremes, whereby there is an element of pre-visualisation, and an element of opportunism, and the relative contribution of these to the final image can vary.

What matters is that you get the image you wanted.  Sometimes, that is a result of very rapid decisions, and sometimes of prolonged work.  Sometimes you have to make up your mind very rapidly about what image you want, and what you want the final result to look like, and this process may be almost simultaneous with taking the photo.  So, for example, I may spot a butterfly resting in our meadow.  I think quickly about the background and lighting, how I can approach the insect, what depth of field I want, whilst at the same time, approaching, setting up my camera, and hopefully capturing the shot (most of the time the butterfly has moved, or gone, but that is the charm of wildlife photography).  Other times you may need to set things up in advance:  we set up seed feeders for our birds so that we can get images with the light that I want, and the background that I want, for example.  I will also wait for the right weather or lighting conditions to get an image of a particular local landscape.  This can take months, or even years, if you want snow coverage and it doesn’t snow that winter.

Most of the time, there is some time after you’ve spotted the opportunity, to think about what you want the image to be like.  Is it the colour that attracts you?  Or the pattern of light and shade (in which case, you may see the final image in monochrome and adapt what you shoot accordingly)?  Do you want to convey an emotion?  In which case, what post processing would you like to use?  Is the lighting right? If not, can you improve it by using flash or reflectors?  Do you want the water to look blurred, in which case you may want to use a tripod?  Do you want good contrast in both sky and foreground (maybe you might use a filter?)?  Finally, what equipment have you got with you, and what can you get, given the things you have available (I often have the “wrong” lens on my camera, but manage to get something acceptable despite that)?  The permutations are endless, but the point is that photography is almost always a combination between pre-visualisation and opportunism.  Making the most of both is one of the great skills a photographer can have.

Photography Part 4: A good photo helps you experience what the photographer experienced

I love nature, landscapes, the natural world.  Some scenes are truly breathtaking.  They reach you at a very deep level, they make you see the world in a different way, and generate emotions.  The scene becomes an experience, rather than an image.What I love about photography is the challenge of helping others to share that experience through the image I take, and that is not necessarily achieved by making a literal record.

What I like is to dissect the experience I am having:  what is it about the place I am in, and the things that I am seeing that is drawing my eye, and making me feel in particular way?  Is it the colours?  The light?  The temperature or humidity?  Abstract patterns?  Sight-lines?  The sky?  Detail or the whole picture?  The detail of a creature, or its place in the context of the landscape?  An emotion?  Do I feel light and bright, or sad and gloomy?  Does the place seem happy or creepy?  Is it real or unreal?

Thinking that through, I can then try and think how I can convey that to somebody viewing my image, so they cannot just see what I saw, but feel what I felt and experience what I experienced.

There is no right or wrong, just success or lack of it.  I will not succeed in conveying what I felt or saw to everybody, but if I succeed in making people catch their breath in the way I caught mine, then to me, that is a successful photograph, and that will usually be achieved partly in the image I took, partly through how I took it, and partly through how I processed it.

Thinking of it in this way, I become more convinced that an image is about how it makes you feel, rather than its technical quality.  Technical ability very frequently helps you achieve the effect you want to, and is an extremely useful tool.  Lack of technical quality can impair the experience and therefore, technique, and the quality of the final image is important.  Very important.  But a photo doesn’t have to be technically perfect to be successful by my criterion, and often isn’t.  Perhaps if we all lightened up a bit, and looked at what the photographer is trying to help us experience, or feel, we would all be a little happier with our own images, and get more out of looking at those of others?

Photography Part 2: It’s the Photographer, not the Camera

Following on from my previous post, one of my pet hates is the comment, “that is a good photo, you must have a very good camera”.  It is a bit like telling a surgeon they did a good operation because they had a good scalpel, or a chef that their meal was great because they had good pans.  A sharp scalpel, or good pan, helps, but it is the skill of the operator that makes the difference.  Many excellent images are taken with mobile phones, or the most basic of film cameras.  The best camera is often the one you have with you – a £30k Hasselblad  or a bag full of the latest SLR equipment is no good if you have left it in the car when the opportunity arises. 

Beyond doubt, having a camera that provides you with the tools to achieve your vision, the image you wanted, is helpful, and some images are not possible without the right equipment – distant wildlife, or very large prints being an example of this.  Nevertheless, for the vast majority of images, it is the photographer, and not the camera, that does the work.

Remember what I said about the brain: it is the creative qualities of the way in which the brain processes images that make the difference.  Our eyes are not cameras.  A creative photographer will see opportunities, and make it possible to create an image with relatively simple equipment.  Modern digital cameras are astoundingly cheap, and monumentally capable, and it is possible to get brilliant results with them.  Provided, of course, the photographer had the imagination in the first place.